Taiwan lifts historic ban on Chinese solo tourists

Taiwan on Wednesday lifted a decades-old ban on travel to the island by individual Chinese tourists, saying visitors would act as "peace ambassadors" for the former arch foe.

The first batch of independent mainland tourists, from Beijing, Shanghai and the city of Xiamen on the southeast coast, were expected to arrive next Tuesday, local media reported.

Travel between the island and mainland stopped at the end of the civil war in 1949, and mainland tourists have so far only been allowed to visit Taiwan in groups due to official concerns they might otherwise overstay their visas and work illegally.

Initially, Taiwan will allow 500 individual arrivals from the mainland per day, who it hopes will help maintain peace across the Strait.

"The Chinese tourists will all be peace ambassadors," Maa Shaw-chang, deputy secretary-general to the quasi-official Straits Exchange Foundation, told AFP.

"Unlike visits in groups, individual visits will help Chinese tourists gain an in-depth understanding of Taiwan. And after they go back to the mainland, they can share their travel experiences with relatives and friends," Maa said.

"This way, they will relay the Taiwan people's friendship to the mainland and help sustain peace between the two sides."

The new measures are supported by 56 percent of Taiwan residents, according to a survey of 1,479 people released by cable news network TVBS on Tuesday.

Initially, the programme will apply to residents of the three Chinese cities while residents of the coastal province of Fujian, where Xiamen is located, also will be allowed to travel individually to the Taiwan-controlled islands of Kinmen, Matsu and Penghu.

Travel between the two sides has boomed since President Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan's China-friendly Kuomintang party came to power in 2008, pledging to boost trade links and tourism.

A ban on mainland Chinese travel to Taiwan was lifted by the two sides the same year.

Last year, more than 1.63 million Chinese visited Taiwan - most of them on organised group tours, the rest on business, family and study trips - a rise of 67 percent from a year before, making China the biggest source of visitors to the island, according to Taiwan's government.

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